From the Studio №5

When I first decided that I would start blogging every week again my main motivation was to document my dissertation writing process, not dissect the Trump administration’s shenanigans of the week. Yet it speaks to our moment that Trump sucks up so much time and energy. Still I want to begin to outline some of my own thoughts so that at least they are on electronic paper and not bouncing around my head.

The big question I have been considering is how to properly define what I mean by “antagonism”, a term that mostly only occurs within contemporary political theory in the work of Ernesto Laclau and does not have the same popularity as its opposite, agonism. If the most common definition of agonism today is of conflict and contestation within a certain set of boundaries, commonly defined as Western liberal democracies, then my interest is in stances outside of the agonistic sphere and indeed against agonism as the principle of politics itself.

For me, antagonism is not so much a concept as it is a way of structuring arguments. Following perhaps closer to a foucaultian apparatus or discourse, antagonism is the scaffolding upon which different concepts and terms can be placed and then gives those concepts their political resonance and heft. Such examples of antagonism are Bourgeois/Proletariat, Colonizer/Colonized, White/Black, Men/Women, etc. Immediately there is the problem, however, of what exactly distinguishes an antagonistic discourse from the many other binary logics that we have been taught to distrust by post-structuralism. For me an antagonistic discourse has to fulfill at least two conditions.

First, it refers to a binary conflict of set terms that involves groups. Antagonistic discourses can not be reduced to the problem of the Same/Other, as understood by Levinasian/Derridean thought, or of the Other as definition of the self through the otherizing of the Other, such as in post-colonial texts. Secondly, antagonistic discourse must explain this binary conflict through a structural relation of the two whereby, in a zero-sum game, one side benefits at the expense of the other. The proletariat do not only see the Bourgeoisie as their enemy, but also through Marxism understand the relations that systematically benefit the bourgeoisie over and against the proletariat. This is not to say that Marxism can be reduced to its antagonistic discourse — for Marxism has many things to say about how complicated this relationship is — but that antagonistic discourse is a key tool in its political toolbox (and indeed, perhaps this points to the suspicion of Marxist theories that try to get rid of class struggle as a key component of Marxism).

Antagonistic discourse refers then to 1. a binary conflict and 2. the structural relations that define this conflict. Automatically an antagonistic discourse is a simplifying one. Like Sorel’s myth, it presents a story about reality that is only partially true, but still powerful in how it crystallizes elements that lay under the surface of everyday life. Antagonistic discourse is not a way of explaining more about reality, nor a race to the bottom of oppression to find out which antagonism is truly “real”. Implicit in contemporary social formations is a wide variety of relations of power and oppression waiting to be activated. Furthermore, an antagonistic discourse is selective in choosing one set of relations instead of others, but antagonistic discourse will only be effective to the degree that it speaks to antagonisms that feel real for significant numbers of people.

To make one concrete example, Trump — intentionally or not — deploys antagonistic discourse whenever he references non-white people, for clearly the Trumpist worldview is one of unreconstructed white supremacy and what Lester Spence calls a new “cold civil war” in the American polity. Trump’s words do not say something actually true about the social formation, for white people are not directly injured by people of color except to the extent that white supremacy itself is challenged as an axis of antagonism. Yet they are effective to the degree that they tapped into an antagonism salient among large numbers of people who then voted for him in the primaries and then, alongside the many other factors I’ve pointed out here, helped him win the election. In this example we see that a better understanding of antagonistic discourse touches upon suddenly relevant literature involving ideology, populism, and anti-fascism.

A better understanding of antagonistic discourse may do two things then, if we’re looking for purely academic payoff. First is that it helps identify the actual political effectiveness of ideas. Under what contexts do ideas about class struggle become more salient than ideas about race struggle, to take one very broad case? A tentative answer may be that how such ideas are organized create more political heft that can speak to more people (and if we are to believe Foucault on this, Marx already modeled class struggle on the conflictual logic of race struggle). The other takeaway is that antagonistic discourse helps explain how ideas travel. For example, how does Marxism spread itself across the world to eventually encompass issues far beyond Marx’s, such as race, colonialism, peasant relations, patriarchy, etc.? One answer is that, beyond its own concepts, Marxism offered a rhetorical repertoire in its commitment to antagonism that could travel and be applied in a wide variety of different contexts that still featured significant divisions of labor and exploitation.

Of course, this is all just the start of an idea than its end. There are significant problems and oversights in all of this, and it is particularly an open question whether antagonistic discourse alone is worth paying attention to in a time that demands accountability to multiple forms of oppression that are targeted by the fascist resurgence. Yet I was struct by a sentence from Barrington Moore, writing in 1958, that I think gets at the crux of the problem of investigating political ideas. He writes, “The creation of a doctrine has often been one of the very first steps along the road to power. With widely varying degrees of elaboration, the doctrine provides an explanation of what is wrong with the current sate of affairs and what should be done to correct this state.” What is wrong and what to do about it. Is that not political theory in a nutshell?

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